Work and worship can feel miles apart. Work happens in “the real world,” a place for hard-charging drivenness and cutthroat competiveness. Work is where you expend tons of energy in the attempt to get ahead or, at least, to impress your boss and keep your job.
Worship, on the contrary, is where you receive, a place set apart from the world of demands and achievement. Worship can be inspiring and restful, filling you up rather than depleting you. In worship, most of all, you can enjoy God’s gracious presence. Worship can even get us ready to return to the fatiguing world of work.
Work and worship . . . so far apart . . . and never the twain shall meet. Or so it seems.
But maybe not. In the last twenty years, increasing numbers of Christians are discovering connections between work and worship. Worship services sometimes include prayers or testimonies related to daily work. Preachers use illustrations from the workplace. And some visionary folk have even claimed that our work is worship. (See, for example, “Your Work is Worship” by J.B. Wood or this short video produced by the folks at RightNow.)
Those who make the case for “work as worship” point to a variety of biblical passages to support their point. Some highlight crucial New Testament texts, such as:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)
Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters (Colossians 3:23)
Others go back to the Old Testament, noting that avodah, one of the key Hebrew words for “work,” also means “worship.” (See this piece from the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics or this video from Made to Flourish.)
In what I’m writing today, I want to support the “work as worship” position from another place in Scripture, one that is not commonly brought forward in the conversation of work and worship. I’m thinking about the New Testament book of Ephesians. If you know that a couple of years ago I published a commentary on Ephesians, it won’t surprise you to see that I’m once again going back to the deep well of truth found in this biblical book. But I’m not drawing from Ephesians just because I’m so familiar with it. Rather, I’m doing this because Ephesians provides a solid and creative foundation for the “work as worship” case.
Work and Worship in Ephesians
In the first chapter of Ephesians, we find a compelling statement of our core purpose for living. We are to “live for the praise of [God’s] glory” (Eph 1:12, 14). More literally, we exist (einai in Greek, “to be”) for the praise of God’s glory. To put it differently, we are on this earth in order to praise God, not just in our prayers and songs, but also in our whole lives. Our core purpose is worship.
Keep this thought in mind as we turn to Ephesians 2. There, we come upon the classic passage on salvation, grace, faith, and works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9). This text makes it crystal clear that our salvation is a gift of God’s grace, received in faith, and not something we earn through our own works.
But this watershed passage on salvation by grace doesn’t end with verse 9. It actually continues into verse 10, which reads, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10). Once we receive God’s grace through faith, we become God’s handiwork. We are created, or one might say, re-created in Christ Jesus “for good works.” Let’s be clear. We aren’t saved by good works. But when we are saved by grace through faith, we are created anew by God for a life of good works. Our works do not earn our salvation. Rather, they are a result of our salvation, an expression of our new life in Christ.
When Ephesians 2:10 refers to the good works that are to be our way of life, this verse is not referring to occasional good deeds that decorate an otherwise morally bland life. Rather, once we have been raised to new life through God’s grace, our whole lives are to be filled with good works offered to God. We may well do many of the things we did before experiencing God’s saving grace, but now these actions have new significance and purpose as we do them “for the praise of God’s glory” (Eph 1:11-14). We are now prepared to worship God through everything we do, presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1) and doing everything in the name of Jesus (Col 3:17).
What we’ve seen so far in Ephesians surely implies that our work can be worship. This implication is strengthened by Ephesians 4:28, which reads in the NRSV, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Unfortunately, this translation misses the nuance of the original language. More accurate is the CEB: “Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.” In this translation, thieves are “to do good” with their hands, not merely “to work honestly.” In fact, the Greek original actually says, “Thieves should no longer steal. Rather, let them labor, working with their [own] hands that which is good [ergazomenos tais [idiais] chersin to agathon], in order that they might have something to share with those in need.” The Greek word at the end of this phrase, agathon, is the basic word for “good.” The point here is that thieves are not to do evil work but good work. Of course, if this is true for thieves, it is also true for all of us. Through our work, we can do good. Our daily work should be filled with the “good works” that God has prepared for us (Eph 2:10).
The Original Goodness of Work
Where does this notion of the goodness of work come from? It can be found throughout Scripture, but perhaps most strikingly in the very first chapter of the Bible. There, God created, speaking heaven and earth into existence. God’s creative activity is described in Genesis as God’s “work” (mela’khah in Hebrew, Gen 2:2). Throughout the first creation account, God regularly paused to observe that what God had created was “good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25). Then, admiring all the work that he had done, God “saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
But just because God’s work was good, does this mean that our work partakes of the same goodness? Yes, it does. Again, turning to Genesis 1, we see that God created humankind as a unique representative of God: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). If we are so much like God, we’d infer that we are to do like God as well. This assumption inference is affirmed in the next verse of Genesis. Immediately after creating human beings, God gave the very first commandment of the Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:28). Human beings are to be partners with God in the work of filling, stewarding, and governing creation, also helping it to be productive and protected (Gen 2:15).
By doing the work God assigned to them, human beings obey God. They also glorify God, honoring God’s intentions for them. Through work, human beings worship God. It’s fascinating to notice that in the creation account in Genesis, God does not create a literal temple. Neither does God assign traditional priestly duties to the man and the woman, things like ritual sacrifices. Nor does God call upon the first humans to sing songs of praise. Not that these things are bad, mind you. They’ll come along soon in the biblical story. But the absence of the temple and its functions in Genesis 1 and 2 makes it clear that God is present in all of creation. And God’s people will worship him, not through the actions of the temple priesthood, but rather though doing the work God gave them to do. As human beings bear fruit and multiply, as they exercise stewardship over creation, as they help the world to be productive while protecting it from harm, they are acting as priests in God’s cosmic temple. They are worshiping God through their work.
Of course Genesis 1 isn’t the end of the story. Once sin enters the picture in Genesis 3, human work becomes a mixed bag, something fundamentally good yet deeply broken. Human beings will still do the work God assigned to them, but with pain and frustration. Ultimately, however, Christ will redeem and restore, saving human beings from the futility of the broken world. Through Christ, work can begin to recover more of its original goodness, even though the full restoration of work must wait until the consummation of all things through Christ.
Conclusion: Work and Worship Through the Lens of Ephesians
So, to conclude, here is what we have seen about work and worship in Ephesians:
- We exist for the praise of God’s glory (Eph 1:11-14). The core purpose of our lives is to worship God. This includes everything we do, not just our “religious” activities.
- Once we are saved by grace, received in faith, we are newly created in Christ “for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10). When we do the good works God has prepared for us, we are living for the praise of his glory. Thus, we worship God, according to Ephesians, by living a life full of good works as an expression of our salvation.
- Our daily work, if it is not evil (like thievery, for example), can be good. We can “work that which is good” according to Ephesians 4:28. Moreover, through the redemption we experience in Christ, we can begin to experience the goodness of work, even though this goodness will not be complete until God restores all creation and work recovers its full, original goodness.
Thus, when we do work that is good, we are walking in the good works God has prepared for us. In this way we are living for the praise of God’s glory. We are worshiping God through what we do each day as workers: making good products, selling these good products at good prices, building good businesses that provide good jobs for workers, teaching children what is good and true, passing or enforcing good laws, making good art, building good buildings, planting and harvesting good food, and so forth and so on. Therefore, our work can be worship when we do good work for God’s glory. Our work can be a major way – some would even say the major way – for us to glorify God in our daily lives, offering our bodies to him as a living sacrifice while we work, doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.